It's high stakes when it comes to roasting a turkey or other large cut of meat during the holiday season. Many a good cook has lost their sanity (or at least pulled out some hair) trying to make sure that they delivered a fully-cooked bird with golden, crackling skin in time for the big meal. Critical to success is a good roasting pan and knowledge of how to use it—that's where we come in.
What Is a Roasting Pan and How Does It Work?A roasting pan is a cooking vessel suitable—if not specifically designed—for cooking inside of a hot, enclosed space (i.e., an oven) where food is exposed to indirect heat. Roasting pans typically have tall, straight walls to help prevent splattering and contain runoff from large pieces of meat, like turkeys, chickens or prime rib. Smaller roasting pans, which typically have shorter walls, are better suited for vegetables.
How Are Roasting Pans Made and What Should I Buy?Roasting pans come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, including carbon steel, aluminum, stainless steel, copper and stoneware.
Chef Bruce Mattel, senior associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, says that you should look for roasting pans made from metal with a fairly heavy gauge as they’ll conduct and retain heat better than thinner pans. He also recommends pans with riveted handles as they’re much sturdier and tend to last longer than handles that are spot welded. Pans with coved (curved) interior seams and corners are also best as they’re much easier to clean.
These days high quality metal roasting pans are made similarly to other types of cookware, meaning that it’s not hard to find models that are fully clad (where an internal layer of aluminum—or sometimes copper—is sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel). Not only does fully clad cookware conduct heat well, it also tends to be sturdy and well-made. All-Clad is the progenitor of this type of cookware and, putting aside the fact that it’s not induction compatible, its roasting pan is a solid choice.
Mac Kohler, co-owner of Brooklyn Copper Cookware, sees things a little differently. He says that roasting pans made from copper actually provide a superior roasting experience when compared to any other material because of copper’s incredible ability to conduct heat.
“The thing to note about copper cookware and copper in general is that it equalizes with the heat being put into it almost immediately,” Kohler explains. The reason this is important is because, despite the fact that roasting pans conduct heat, the efficiency with which they do so is greatly impacted by the material the pan is made of.
When you roast your turkey, the pan itself actually helps to insulate the meat from the heat being emitted from the oven, making the bottom of the turkey cook more slowly than the top. If you’ve ever had a turkey where the breast was perfect but the dark meat underdone (or where the dark meat was perfect but the breast was dry as a bone), the roasting pan itself was probably partly to blame. Kohler says this is much less of an issue when you use copper because it’s so unbelievably great at conducting heat that it doesn’t cause that same kind of insulation and, in his words, “it becomes effectively invisible very quickly.” While copper pans do have a protective lining of either tin or stainless steel, that lining is thin enough that it doesn’t significantly interfere with heat conduction.
If you’re looking to invest in a copper roasting pan, Mauviel is a great choice. True, a copper roasting pan is more expensive than an equivalent fully clad stainless steel pan, but they’re by far the most aesthetically pleasing and are durable enough that they will last not only your lifetime, but can be passed down for generations to come.
On the lower end of the spectrum are pans made from pure aluminum and stoneware. Aluminum pans conduct heat well but they can feel flimsy and don’t have as long of a lifespan as stainless steel pans. Inversely, stoneware pans are extremely sturdy but are incredibly poor conductors of heat, making them more suitable for cooking meat that requires a very long cook time and where you want it to fall off the bone, like pulled pork.
The cheapest and lowest quality roasting pans you’re likely to come across are made of enameled thin gauge carbon steel. These are the pans you’ll find languishing, chipped and rusty, in thrift stores and at yard sales, and are best left there.
How to Get the Best Results from a Roasting PanOvens are great because they produce heat from all sides, but a number of factors can interfere with producing the perfect turkey. Here are some tips to help you get a juicy, evenly cooked bird.
• Position your turkey so that it’s dead center in the middle of your oven. Pull out the extra racks if you need to make room.
• Some people believe that elevating a turkey within the pan can help with airflow and promote more even cooking. V-shaped roasting racks are one option, but Mattel says that this can raise the turkey too high and can result in overcooked breast meat. Instead, try using a low, flat baking rack, or even just crumpling up some aluminum foil into a ring and positioning the turkey on top of it within the pan.
• Chef Mattel says that if you want to roast vegetables in the same pan as your turkey, cut them into even ½-inch dice and add them about half an hour before you think the turkey will be done.
• To make a pan gravy, once your turkey has finished cooking remove it from the pan and let it rest on a counter (which will also help with moisture retention). While it’s resting take your metal roasting pan, put it directly onto the burners of your stove, and proceed with making your gravy directly in the pan. Keep in mind that certain materials, such as aluminum and copper, are not compatible with induction cooktops, and that stoneware roasting pans may shatter if put directly over an open flame.
• With copper pans, make sure you keep a close eye on how quickly your turkey is cooking. The increased heat conductivity may mean that you’ll need to cook your turkey at a slightly lower temperature or for less time.
How Do You Take Care of a Roasting Pan?• Take special care to clean around the handles and rivets, inside and out. Grease can easily get trapped in these areas if you don’t clean them thoroughly. The same goes for the interior seams and corners of the pan.
• Regardless of what the manufacturer says, do not put your roasting pan in a dishwasher. The abrasive cleanser can do permanent damage to your pan. This is particularly true of copper pans, which are a soft metal and are more easily scratched than stainless steel.
• If you find your copper pan is getting tarnished and dingy, try using a specialized copper polish to restore luster and shine.
• If you’re having trouble removing fond or burned bits from the bottom of your pan and soaking isn’t helping, boil about an inch of water in it on the stovetop to help to loosen stuck on food.